Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Charles Fort - A Most Peculiar Man

Charles Hoy Fort was a most unusual man; some might even say peculiar. Either way; he made quite an impression, leaving over 60,000 written articles to the New York Public Library upon his death in 1932. He may not have been correct in most of the things he wrote about, but he was prolific!

Born in August 1874 in Albany, New York he is considered to be an American writer and researcher of anomalous phenomena. Although he was controversial; to say the least; his books are still in print and there adherents to his philosophies; even if they have largely been discredited by science. He is somewhat of an American oddity; indeed, I am writing about here, over 80 years after his death in May of 1932.

Some might say that Mr. Fort was the father of the modern American conspiracy theorists; those who believe that the government lies to the people about everything. Hmmm, there might be something to that. But Mr. Fort’s distrust seems to have originated with his stern father, who was a grocer by trade. In his autobiography he recalls several “harsh” physical punishments at the hands of his father.

As weird as some of his theories may have been, the man was literally driven, by his teen years he was already a collector of sea shells, birds, rocks, insects and anything else he could amass. And he became totally immersed in whatever he was interested in at the time. So, it is no surprise that when he turned of age he set off to see more of the world which he was so curious about.

In 1892 he left on a tour of the world, in order he claimed, to "put some capital in the bank of experience". He crossed the United States, went through Scotland and England before setting off to Africa. It was there that fate made its appearance and he took ill, forcing him to return home.

But even that turned to his advantage when he reconnected with Anna Filing, a woman whom he had known previously and was now engaged as his nurse. They were married in 1896 and the couple set off for England shortly after that. It is of particular note that she was 4 years his senior and not very well read. Her chief interests seem to have been silent films and parakeets! While in London they lived a rocky life financially as he struggled with writing short stories to fund his research into just about anything which interested him.

His chief bit of renown came from his investigation in “spontaneous eruptions” of people bursting into flames. Although they were burned to a crisp, their clothes were always unharmed; which ruled out lightning. In the 1890’s and on through the early 20th century this was a common occurrence; which has never really been explained beyond the fact that science wasn’t able to answer the question at the time. So, you have to wonder…

His Uncle died in 1916, leaving him enough money to quit working; if you can call what he did working; and devote his time to writing full time. The efforts produced 10 books, one of which actually got published. It was a story about life in the tenements. It was not very well received. He then turned to science.

He was mainly concerned with two questions; the first was about Martians. He believed that we were puppets of the Martians and that they were actually controlling us from space. His other big thing was the existence of a lost civilization that lived at the South Pole. He believed that there was an opening there which allowed them to exit the interior of the earth. He believed that they were plotting to take over. It’s interesting to note that there are some UFO buffs who believe that flying saucers come from that location; thus combining Fort’s two theories into one.

From this theory he was encouraged by writer Theodore Dreiser, to write “The Book of the Damned” in 1919, which would cement his name into literary history. If not for that work I would probably not be writing of him now. The book is a compendium of all his unproven research. Unproven is used here in two ways. The first is obvious; he never proved any of his theories to be true. The second meaning is better; science had never actually proven him to be wrong.  

Aside from a return visit to London, where he lived from 1924 to 1926, he spent most of the rest of his life in the Bronx. He was a lively and witty character, and sought out by literary contemporaries such as Dreiser. This group of friends rotated meeting at one another’s apartments for coffee and robust discussions about everything under the Sun. When their spouses tired of the meetings night after night, they would adjourn to local neighborhood taverns.

During this period he found himself to have an actual following of people who admired him for any number of reasons. Some believed his theories; while others merely found him to be engaging company. Although he suffered from poor health he had a routine of sorts. Each day he would take the subway to the New York Public Library. He would buy a bunch of newspapers and clip articles from them, writing notes about them all. He needled anything which claimed to be scientific, and then gave his own explanation. These articles comprise much of the 60,000 items he left to the library upon his death.

Say what you will about the guy, he had the courage of his convictions; eschewing doctors and the medicines which might have alleviated some of his suffering. He collapsed on May 3, 1932 and was taken to the hospital. His publisher came to visit him and let him know that his latest book was to be published shortly. He died a few hours later from what was probably a form of leukemia. He was a most peculiar man.

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